CFL expansion to Halifax reaches crucial crossroad

The optimism surrounding yet another attempt at CFL expansion to Atlantic Canada has been extremely cautious. Besides, many have said they've been here before only to have the conversation fall flat.

But since Anthony Leblanc and his business team made serious their intention to bring a team to Nova Scotia during Grey Cup week last November, it's felt different.

Even CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has fanned the football expansion flames, saying "it's the unfulfilled part of our national dream to have the Maritimes have a football team," and that it would be a "defining moment" to have a team in the Maritimes.

They've all been saying the right things. 

Now though, the dream of having a 10th CFL team has reached a pivotal point in the process, one Leblanc says will determine whether or not this will actually happen.

Tuesday night, Maritime Football will ask the Halifax regional council to put forward a motion to officially enter into preliminary negotiations and decide whether this is a worthwhile venture.

If approved, chief administration officer Jacques Dube will then offer his recommendation to council.

 "I think everybody should continue to have the optimism we've had all along," Leblanc told CBC Sports. "We wouldn't be getting into a phase of public discussion if we felt we didn't have good chances of making this happen."

Leblanc says his team has had a number of conversations with elected officials over the last number of weeks and believes there's enough support to continue this venture and feels comfortable they'll be able to move forward.

He says his hope is that administration moves quickly while looking over their proposal to bring a team to Halifax.

"People will say you can't put deadlines on this, but candidly, we can because we're the group that's planning to do this and if we don't feel we're moving the ball down the field, we need to look at what our next steps are."

The deadline Leblanc has suggested is four to six weeks — they want this done by Labour Day. The reason? If they're able to move forward with the project ahead of Labour Day, they want to start a season-ticket drive for football fans in the region to support a team. 

It would be right around this same time — if everything goes as planned — that Leblanc also hopes to have the CFL award Maritime Football a conditional franchise. 

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, centre, meets businessman Anthony Leblanc, middle right, and Maritime fans during the Atlantic Schooners Down East Kitchen Party during Grey Cup week last November. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

But what about the stadium? 

Leblanc knows building a stadium and its location are the most important parts of this expansion puzzle. Last week it was reported Maritime Football had narrowed the choice down to two spots. However, that's since changed.

"That's speculation," Leblanc said. "We haven't publicly confirmed which sites we're looking at."

Those two reported sites were Dartmouth Crossing and a property behind the Kent store in Bayers Lake business park. Leblanc says they've brought in a new group to help them look more closely at a number of different spots that would be best suited for a multi-purpose development.

"They've been working with us for the last several months and I think it's fair to say we're somewhat back to the drawing board because they want to understand all the sites."

Leblanc says they've looked at seven locations a stadium could be built.

"What we're doing over the next two weeks is reaffirming the sites we've narrowed down are the right sites. We're being incredibly thoughtful on this."

He adds the only way they'll be able to make a stadium situation work is that if it includes the multi-purpose model. 

Premier says taxpayers won't pay for stadium 

Last week Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil made it clear taxpayers won't be on the hook for a CFL stadium in Halifax.

"General revenue is not part of our conversation. I'm not reaching into general revenue to build a football stadium," he told CBC News.

McNeil said he will wait for the formal ask to discuss how the government might contribute to the stadium, but was clear it wouldn't come from general revenue.

"If you have another option, you have a new idea of how I can help, feel free to come and ask," he said. "But don't come in and expect I'm going to write you a cheque."

Leblanc says that was never their expectation and interprets the premier's message this way.

"What he means by that, from what we've been told, is they don't want to see provincial dollars that have already been designated being utilized. We've never contemplated that," Leblanc said. 

Leblanc feels new money can be generated from the project and can be put toward building a new stadium. 

"We understand as the private sector we have to participate this in a very healthy manner," Leblanc said.

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